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A Gentleman Vagabond and Some Others
by F. Hopkinson Smith
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The child spread the cloth and busied herself with the dishes and plates. She was about twelve years old, slightly built and neatly dressed. Her eyes were singularly large and expressive. The light brown hair about her shoulders held a tinge of gold when the lamplight shone upon it.

Despite the evident poverty of the interior, a certain air of refinement pervaded everything. Even the old man's bare feet did not detract from it. These, by the way, he never referred to; it was evidently a habit with him. I felt this refinement not only in the relics of what seemed to denote better days, but in the arrangement of the table, the placing of the tea tray and the providing of a separate pot for the hot water. Their voices, too, were low, characteristic of people who live alone and in peace,—especially the old man's.

Brockway resumed his seat and continued talking, asking about the city as if it were a thousand miles away instead of being almost at his door; of the artists,—their mode of life, their successes, etc. As he talked his eye brightened and his manner became more gentle. It was only his outside that seemed to belong to an old boatman, roughened by the open air, with hands hard and brown. Yet these were well shaped, with tapering fingers. One bore a gold ring curiously marked and worn to a thread.

I asked about the fishing, hoping the subject would lead him to talk of his own life, and so solve the doubt in my mind as to his class and antecedents. His replies showed his thorough knowledge of his trade. He deplored the scarcity of bass, now that the steamboats and factories fouled the river; the decrease of the oysters, of which he had several beds, all being injured by the same cause. Then he broke out against the encroachments of the real estate pirates, as he called them, staking out lots behind the Hulk and destroying his privacy.

"But you own the marsh?" I asked carelessly. I saw instantly in his face the change working in his mind. He looked at me searchingly, almost fiercely, and said, weighing each word,—

"Not one foot, young man,—do you hear?—not one foot! Own nothing but what you see. But this hulk is mine,—mine from the mud to the ridgepole, with every rotten timber in it."

The outburst was so sudden that I rose from my chair. For a moment he seemed consumed with an inward rage,—not directed to me in any way,—more as if the memory of some past wrong had angered him.

Here the child, with an anxious face, rose quickly from her seat by the window, and laid her hand on his.

The old man looked into her face for a moment, and then, as if her touch had softened him, rose courteously, took her arm, seated her at the table and then me. In a moment more he had regained his gentle manner.

The meal was a frugal one, broiled fish and potatoes, a loaf of bread, and stewed apples served in a cut glass dish with broken handles.

The meal over, the girl replaced the cotton cloth with a red one, retrimmed the lamps, and disappeared into an adjoining room, carrying the dishes. The old man lighted his pipe and seated himself in a large chair, smoking on in silence. I opened my portfolio and began retouching the sketches of the morning.

Outside the weather grew more boisterous. The wind increased; the rain thrashed against the small windows, the leakage dropping on the floor like the slow ticking of a clock.

As the evening wore on I began to be uneasy, speculating as to the possibility of my reaching home that night. To be entirely frank, I did not altogether like my surroundings or my host. One moment he was like a child; the next there came into his face an expression of uncontrollable hate that sent a shiver through me. But for the clear, steady gaze of his eye I should have doubted his sanity.

There was no sign of the return of the boat. The old man became restless himself. He said nothing, but every now and then he would peer through the window and raise his hand to his ear as if listening. It was evident that he did not want me over night if he could help it. This partly reassured me.

Finally, he laid down his pipe, put on his oilskin again, lighted a lantern, and pulled the door behind him, the wind struggling to force an entrance.

In a few minutes he returned with lantern out, the rain glistening on his white, bushy beard. Without a word, he hung up his dripping garments, placed the lantern on the floor, and called the child into the adjoining room. When he came back, he laid his hand on my shoulder and said, with a tone in his voice that was unmistakable in its sincerity:—

"I am sorry, friend, but the boat cannot get back to-night. You seem like a decent man, and I believe you are. I knew some of your kind once, and I always liked them. You must stay where you are to-night, and have Emily's room."

I thanked him, but hoped the weather would clear. As to taking Emily's room, this I could not do. I would not, of course, disturb the child. If there was no chance of my getting away, I said, I preferred taking the floor, with my trap for a pillow. But he would not hear of it. He was not accustomed, he said, to have people stay with him, especially of late years; but when they did, they could not sleep on the floor.

The child's room proved to be the old cabin of the canal-boat, with the three steps leading down from the decks. The little slanting windows were still there, and so were the bunks,—or, rather, the lower one. The upper one had been altered into a sort of closet. On one side hung a row of shelves on which were such small knickknacks as a child always loves,—a Christmas card or two, some books, a pin-cushion backed with shells, a doll's bonnet, besides some trinkets and strings of beads. Next to this ran a row of hooks covered by a curtain of cheap calico, half concealing her few simple dresses, with her muddy little shoes and frayed straw hat in the farther corner.

Above the head-board hung the likeness of a woman with large eyes, her hair pushed back from a wide, high forehead. It was framed in an old-fashioned black frame with a gold mat. Not a beautiful face, but so interesting and so expressive that I looked at it half a dozen times before I could return it to its place.

Everything was as clean and fresh as care could make it. When I dropped to sleep, the tide was swashing the floor beneath me, the rain still sousing and drenching the little windows and the roof.

* * * * *

The following week, one crisp, fresh morning, I was again at the Hulk. My experience the night of the storm had given me more confidence in Brockway, although the mystery of his life was still impenetrable. As I rounded the point, the old man and little Emily were just pushing off in the boat. He was on his way to his oyster beds a short distance off, his grappling-tongs and basket beside him. In his quick, almost gruff way, he welcomed me heartily and insisted on my staying to dinner. He would be back in an hour with a mess of oysters to help out. "Somebody has been raking my beds and I must look after them," he called to me as he rowed away.

I drew my own boat well up on the gravel, out of reach of the making tide, and put my easel close to the water's edge. I wanted to paint the Hulk and the river with the bluffs beyond. Before I had blocked in my sky, I caught sight of Brockway rowing hurriedly back, followed by a shell holding half a dozen oarsmen from one of the boating clubs down the river. The crew were out for a spin in their striped shirts and caps; the coxswain was calling to him, but he made no reply.

"Say, Mr. Brockway! will you please fill our water-keg? We have come off from the boat-house without a drop," I heard one call out.

"No; not to save your lives, I wouldn't!" he shouted back, his boat striking the beach. Springing out and catching Emily by the shoulder, pushing her before him,—"Go into the Hulk, child." Then, lowering his voice to me, "They are all alike, d—- them, all alike. Just such a gang! I know 'em, I know 'em. Get you a drink? I'll see you dead first, d—- you. See you dead first; do you hear?"

His face was livid, his eyes blazing with anger. The crew turned and shot up the river, grumbling as they went. Brockway unloaded his boat, clutching the tongs as if they were weapons; then, tying the painter to a stake, sat down and watched me at work. Soon Emily crept back and slipped one hand around her grandfather's neck.

"Do you think you can ever do that, little Frowsy-head?" he said, pointing to my sketch. I looked up. His face was as serene and sunny as that of the child beside him.

Gradually I came to know these people better. I never could tell why, our tastes being so dissimilar. I fancied, sometimes, from a remark the old man once made, that he had perhaps known some one who had been a painter, and that I reminded him of his friend, and on that account he trusted me; for I often detected him examining my brushes, spreading the bristles on his palm, or holding them to the light with a critical air. I could see, too, that their touch was not new to him.

As for me, the picturesqueness of the Hulk, the simple mode of life of the inmates, their innate refinement, the unselfish devotion of little Emily to the old man, the conflicting elements in his character, his fierceness—almost brutality—at times, his extreme gentleness at others, his rough treatment of every stranger who attempted to land on his shore, his tenderness over the child, all combined to pique my curiosity to know something of his earlier life.

Moreover, I constantly saw new beauties in the old Hulk. It always seemed to adapt itself to the changing moods of the weather,—being grave or gay as the skies lowered or smiled. In the dull November days, when the clouds drifted in straight lines of slaty gray, it assumed a weird, forbidding look. When the wind blew a gale from the northeast, and the back water of the river overflowed the marsh,—submerging the withered grass and breaking high upon the foot-bridge,—it seemed for all the world like the original tenement of old Noah himself, derelict ever since his disembarkation, and stranded here after centuries of buffetings. On other days it had a sullen air, settling back in its bed of mud as if tired out with all these miseries, glaring at you with its one eye of a window aflame with the setting sun.

As the autumn lost itself in the winter, I continued my excursions to the Hulk, sketching in the neighborhood, gathering nuts with little Emily, or helping the old man with his nets.

On one of these days a woman, plainly but neatly dressed, met me at the edge of the wood, inquired if I had seen a child pass my way, and quickly disappeared in the bushes. I noticed her anxious face and the pathos of her eyes when I answered. Then the incident passed out of my mind. A few days later I saw her again, sitting on a pile of stones as if waiting for some one. Little Emily had seen her too, and stopped to talk to her. I could follow their movements over my easel. As soon as the child caught my eye she started up and ran towards the Hulk, the woman darting again into the bushes. When I questioned Emily about it she hesitated, and said it was a poor woman who had lost her little girl and who was very sad.

Brockway himself became more and more a mystery. I sought every opportunity to coax from him something of his earlier life, but he never referred to it but once, and then in a way that left the subject more impenetrable than ever.

I was speaking of a recent trip abroad, when he turned abruptly and said:—

"Is the Milo still in that little room in the Louvre?"

"Yes," I answered, surprised.

"I am glad of that. Against that red curtain she is the most beautiful thing I know."

"When did you see the Venus?" I asked, as quietly as my astonishment would allow.

"Oh, some years ago, when I was abroad."

He was bending over and putting some new teeth in his oyster tongs at the time, riveting them on a flat-iron with a small hammer.

I agreed with him and asked carelessly what year that was and what he was doing in Paris, but he affected not to hear me and went on with his hammering, remarking that the oysters were running so small that some slipped through his tongs and he was getting too old to rake for them twice. It was only a glimpse of some part of his past, but it was all I could get. He never referred to it again.

December of that year was unusually severe. The snow fell early and the river was closed before Christmas. This shut off all communication with the Brockways except by the roundabout way I had first followed, over the hills from the west. So my weekly tramps ceased.

Late in the following February I heard, through Dan the brakeman, that the old man was greatly broken and had not been out of the Hulk for weeks. I started at once to see him. The ice was adrift and running with the tide, and the passage across was made doubly difficult by the floating cakes shelved one upon the other. When I reached the Hulk, the only sign of life was the thin curl of smoke from the rusty pipe. Even the snow of the night before lay unbroken on the bridge, showing that no foot had crossed it that morning. I knocked, and Emily opened the door.

"Oh, it's the painter, grandpa! We thought it might be the doctor."

He was sitting in an armchair by the fire, wrapped in a blanket. Holding out his hand, he motioned to a chair and said feebly:—

"How did you hear?"

"The brakeman told me."

"Yes, Dan knows. He comes over Sundays."

He was greatly changed,—his skin drawn and shrunken,—his grizzled beard, once so great a contrast to his ruddy skin, only added to the pallor of his face. He had had a slight "stroke," he thought. It had passed off, but left him very weak.

I sat down and, to change the current of his thoughts, told him of the river outside, and the shelving ice, of my life since I had seen him, and whatever I thought would interest him. He made no reply, except in monosyllables, his head buried in his hands. Soon the afternoon light faded, and I rose to go. Then he roused himself, threw the blanket from his shoulders and said in something of his old voice:—

"Don't leave me. Do you hear? Don't leave me!" this was with an authoritative gesture. Then, his voice faltering and with almost a tender tone, "Please help me through this. My strength is almost gone."

Later, when the night closed in, he called Emily to him, pushed her hair back and, kissing her forehead, said:—

"Now go to bed, little Frowsy-head. The painter will stay with me."

I filled his pipe, threw some dry driftwood in the stove, and drew my chair nearer. He tried to smoke for a moment, but laid his pipe down. For some minutes he kept his eyes on the crackling wood; then, reaching his hand out, laid it on my arm and said slowly:—

"If it were not for the child, I would be glad that the end was near."

"Has she no one to care for her?" I asked.

"Only her mother. When I am gone, she will come."

"Her mother? Why, Brockway! I did not know Emily's mother was alive. Why not send for her now," I said, looking into his shrunken face. "You need a woman's care at once."

His grasp tightened on my arm as he half rose from the chair, his eyes blazing as I had seen them that morning when he cursed the boat's crew.

"But not that woman! Never, while I live!" and he bent down his eyes on mine. "Look at me. Men sometimes cut you to the quick, and now and then a woman can leave a scar that never heals; but your own child,—do you hear?—your little girl, the only one you ever had, the one you laid store by and loved and dreamed dreams of,—she can tear your heart out. That's what Emily's mother did for me. Oh, a fine gentleman, with his yachts, and boats, and horses,—a fine young aristocrat! He was a thief, I tell you, a blackguard, a beast, to steal my girl. Damn him! Damn him! Damn him!" and he fell back in his chair exhausted.

"Where is she now?" I asked cautiously, trying to change his thoughts. I was afraid of the result if the outburst continued.

"God knows! Somewhere in the city. She comes here every now and then," in a weaker voice. "Emily meets her and they go off together when I am out raking my beds. Not long ago I met her outside on the foot-bridge; she did not look up; her hair is gray now, and her face is thin and old, and so sad,—not as it once was. God forgive me,—not as it once was!" He leaned forward, his face buried in his hands.

Then he staggered to his feet, took the lamp from the table, and brought me the picture I had seen in Emily's room the night of the storm.

"You can see what she was like. It was taken the year before his death and came with Emily's clothes. She found it in her box."

I held it to the light. The large, dreamy eyes seemed even more pleading than when I first had seen the picture; and the smooth hair pushed back from the high forehead, I now saw, marked all the more clearly the lines of anxious care which were then beginning to creep over the sweet young face. It seemed to speak to me in an earnest, pleading way, as if for help.

"She is your daughter, Brockway, don't forget that."

He made no reply. After a pause, I went on, "And a girl's heart is not her own. Was it all her fault?"

He pushed his chair back and stood erect, one hand raised above the other, clutching the blanket around his throat, the end trailing on the floor. By the flickering light of the dying fire he looked like some gaunt spectre towering above me, the blackness of the shadows only intensifying the whiteness of his face.

"Go on, go on. I know what you would say. You would have me wipe out the past and forget. Forget the home she ruined and the dead mother's heart she broke. Forget the weary months abroad, the tramping of London's streets looking into every woman's face, afraid it was she. Forget these years of exile and poverty, living here in this hulk like a dog, my very name unknown. When I am dead, they will say I have been cruel to her. God knows, perhaps I have; listen!" Then, glancing cautiously towards Emily's room and lowering his voice, he stooped down, his white sunken face close to mine, his eyes burning, gazed long and steadily into my face as if reading my very thoughts, and then, gathering himself up, said slowly: "No, no. I will not Let it all be buried with me. I cannot,—cannot!" and sank into his chair.

After a while he raised his head, picked up the portrait from the table and looked into its eyes eagerly, holding it in both hands; and muttering to himself, crossed the room, and threw himself on his bed. I stirred the fire, wrapped my coat about me and fell asleep on the lounge. Later, I awoke and crept into his room. He was lying on his back, the picture still clasped in his hands.

* * * * *

A week later, I reached the landing opposite the Hulk. There I met Dan's wife. Dan himself had been away for several days. She told me that two nights before she had been roused by a woman who had come up on the night express and wanted to be rowed over to the Hulk at once. She was in great distress, and did not mind the danger. Dan was against taking her, the ice being heavy and the night dark; but she begged so hard he had not the heart to refuse her. She seemed to be expected, for Emily was waiting with a lantern on the bridge and put her arms around her and led her into the Hulk.

Dan being away, I found another boatman, and we pushed out into the river. I stood up in the boat and looked over the waste of ice and snow. Under the leaden sky lay the lifeless Hulk. About the entrance and on the bridge were black dots of figures, standing out in clear relief like crows on the unbroken snow.

As I drew nearer, the dots increased in size and fell into line, the procession slowly creeping along the tottering bridge, crunching the snow under foot. Then I made out little Emily and a neatly-dressed woman heavily veiled.

When the shore was reached, I joined some fishermen who stood about on the beach, uncovering their heads as the coffin passed. An open wagon waited near the propped-up foot-bridge of the Hulk, the horse covered with a black blanket. Two men, carrying the body, crouched down and pushed the box into the wagon. The blanket was then taken from the horse and wrapped over the pine casket.

The woman drew nearer and tenderly smoothed its folds. Then she turned, lifted her veil, and in a low voice thanked the few bystanders for their kindness.

It was the same face I had seen with Emily in the woods,—the same that lay upon his heart the last night I saw him alive.

THE END

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